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School Board Won't Toss Out 'Witch Baby'

It took an hour and 15 minutes for the Fairfax County School Board to decide "Witch Baby," written by Francesca Lia Block, should not be removed from elementary- and middle-school libraries.

Richard and Alice Ess of Alexandria had challenged the book, according to documents, because of a homosexual story line. The Esses requested the book "be removed from all FCPS elementary and middle schools and the future use of this book in these schools be prohibited."

AN AD HOC review committee voted 6-1 to deny the challengers' request, which led to an appeal to the School Board. However, Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech decided some action was needed.

In a memo to the School Board, Domenech wrote: "because the main character's alienation (coupled with the lively, fast paced writing style) could be somewhat confusing for less mature readers, I have asked that elementary school libraries place a 'YA' (young adult) sticker on their copies."

At a special meeting convened Monday night to discuss the appeal, School Board member Mychele Brickner (At large) failed to gain support to uphold the challenge, thereby removing the book as requested, by a vote of 1-7, with three abstentions — Tessie Wilson (Braddock), Rita Thompson (At large) and Christian Braunlich (Lee). School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) was absent from the meeting.

Wilson, citing contemporary issues that are not clearly explained that could be confusing for young readers, attempted to have the book removed from elementary schools only. Again, the motion failed, this time by a vote of 4-7, split down party lines.

"I must say this is not one of the books I would retain for my own collection," Wilson said. "I think for an elementary-school population, there is not enough explanation of some of these topics. I think it may be OK for the middle-school population."

Wilson specifically referenced a scene regarding deportation and another involving radiation that she felt did not offer enough explanation for younger readers to understand.

NEARLY EVERYONE on the board said they found the 115-page book confusing and not particularly good writing, however, most did not feel it merited removal.

"This is the second time the book has come into my life and I am no more convinced of its literary merit, but the challenge is not about literary merit," said Kaye Kory (Mason). "I think this book is harmless and irritating and I'm glad my own daughter didn't read it beyond chapter one, deciding it wasn't worth her time."

"What concerns me is the motivation for the challenge. It's not because of language or vulgarity. It's because they don't agree with the ideas in the book," said Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill). "The courts have said you cannot restrict books because you disagree with the ideas."

School-system records show the book is available in three elementary schools, three middle schools, 14 high schools and one educational center. Records also show that since 1992, the book has been checked out 17 times.

Braunlich said the circulation figures bring up another issue, "Why are librarians buying books and spending taxpayers' money on books the kids aren't reading?"

THE SCHOOL BOARD has at least four more appeals in the upcoming months. A meeting has been scheduled for April 7 to discuss challenges to "Growing Up Chicano," by Tiffany Ana Lopez and "How the Garica Girls Lost Their Accents," by Julia Alverez. A second meeting has yet to be scheduled to discuss challenges to "A Thousand Pieces of Gold," written by Ruthanne Lum McCunn and "When I Was Puerto Rican," by Esmeralda Santiago. In all, the Esses filed challenges late last year to remove 25 books from school libraries systemwide, many of which have already been deemed to require no action because the book in question has already been removed or was only available in the Professional Collection, which cannot be accessed by students.